Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: 'Potentially earth-shattering' research may give us permission to feel

There are some things we can only accept. Photo / 123RF
There are some things we can only accept. Photo / 123RF

Good morning!

I can hear someone using a leaf blower, but it is making that idling sound. What are they doing with it , just standing there having a fag? "Sorry darling I'm just going to tidy up in the garden, wink wink."

But I can also hear the cicadas; a Phil Spector-like wall of sound. Actually, once you notice the loudness of the cicadas it becomes kind of annoying. How can I get anything done with that racket? Stop chirping!

Then, here is me. I am wearing paisley pyjamas and sitting cross-legged on my bed and my one foot has pins and needles.

And my breakfast. Well. There really is no other beverage quite as gourmet as luke-warm weak instant coffee is there? It satisfies the perversity in me that always likes things all the more because they are not immediately attractive (Duct tape, anchovies, acne scars), Perfection is the devil.

But all of these sensations, right now, the noisy cicadas, the coffee, this newspaper deadline, this is my life. And for this moment, life is okay.

I just want to capture this feeling, because mostly, when nothing much is going on, there are no crises - our daughter has just become a library monitor, our son goes to school with only obligatory complaints, I'm not hungover or depressed, there are no major personal life predicaments- I can't seem to really notice. (Negative bias, it truly is a bastard.) Other lower-echelon anxieties just expand to fill the vacuum.

Of course, having no hand-waving dramas is terrible for column writing. Where is my material! But surely, it's good in other respects?

I just wish I could bask in this feeling of day-to-day normality for a bit, rather than finding substitute lesser worries to fill the vacant slots. (Could I have willed myself not to have such flat feet? Will anyone come to my 50th birthday party?)

Why is it so hard to just let ourselves feel what we feel, without having to improve ourselves or be better or feel different?

I sometimes suspect we would really prefer people to stop feeling altogether. Stop feeling anything, just think.

But it might not be that simple. Maybe feeling and thinking are not that different, according to a new piece of research published in a scholarly journal this week, and described by Psychology Today as "potentially earth shattering".

Yes, that breathy catchphrase sounds like it was written by a gullible fourth-former rather than a renowned neuroscientist, but this is serious news in cognitive science circles.

The scientist behind it, Joseph LeDoux, is billed as "the man who made the amygdala into a household word" Really? Just in case amygdala isn't common parlance in your house, the amygdala is a section of our old, lizard brain, responsible for detecting fear and preparing for emergency events. LeDoux's Wikipedia entry notes he is also lead singer in a band called the Amygdaloids, so he may be one of those zany neuroscientists, but don't let that fool you. He's no lightweight. His latest piece of research may make scientists rewrite what they know about emotions. (Bet they'll love that).

I hope that the more we learn about emotions, the more we can allow ourselves to let people feel what they feel without telling them to feel differently.

LeDoux has demolished established theories that emotions are innately programmed in the deep, subconscious parts of our brain - survival circuits - and he has found emotions instead qualify as "higher order" states, which like all our conscious states arise from the prefrontal cortex. This research suggests the cortex, our "thinking brain" plays a more prominent role in emotion than previously acknowledged.

"Existential fear/anxiety about the meaningless of life or the eventuality of death may not engage survival circuits at all," Professor LeDoux writes. Emotions, like thoughts, are created in the conscious part of the brain, but the difference is the triggers for each. I wonder whether maybe we might start giving emotions more respect now?

I'm still processing this finding, so I'm not sure what I feel, or think, about this discovery. But it has to be progress whenever we become more able to respect our own, and other people's, emotional states.

I hope that the more we learn about emotions, the more we can allow ourselves to let people feel what they feel without telling them to feel differently. This is especially true for children, who are frequently told not to feel what they feel. (An invalidating environment, to use the jargon.) It also upsets me when I hear commentators telling the Pike River mine families how they should grieve, for example. Or that Maori should "get over" intergenerational trauma. (I am ashamed to say I am one of the people who used to do that. I've changed.)

The notion that we "should" be able to stop feeling overwhelming or negative emotions, is itself damaging. It piles a burden of guilt and self-judgment on top of already distressing states. Don't you think when someone is suffering, if they could feel differently, they would?

Maybe all we can do is just notice. Like those cicadas, which won't stop chirping, there are some things we can only accept. And unlike leaf blowers. Which are annoying and should be banned.

- NZ Herald

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